The Golden Bowl

Over the years, the Merchant-Ivory hyphenate has taken on two meanings. The first is literal, referring to The Bostonians, A Room With A View, Howard's End, The Remains Of The Day, and other films produced by Ismail Merchant and directed by James Ivory. The second is pejorative, used as a broad swipe at middlebrow costume dramas adapted from literary classics with superficial fidelity and tastefulness. In many ways, the pejorative tag is a little unfair, because frilly period pieces are an arthouse staple (Miramax, for one, has turned them into a cottage industry), and few are infused with the intelligence and emotion of Howard's End or The Remains Of The Day. But, then again, even the team's best work seems conspicuously shallow and complacent, like they've passed an essay exam by studying the Cliffs Notes. Their latest, a sumptuously mounted adaptation of Henry James' The Golden Bowl, is a Merchant-Ivory film in every sense of the term. As ever, they adequately translate the work without accessing its deeper meanings, externalizing the most internal of writers through transparent double-speak and head-slappingly obvious symbolism. Compared to the exquisite precision of Terence Davies' The House Of Mirth, it's like watching surgery performed with a butter knife in lieu of a scalpel. The worst in a quartet of clumsy performances, Uma Thurman looks uncomfortable amid the period fineries of the turn-of-the-century elite, but it suits her character, a penniless American socialite with a tenuous place in high society. She's in love with equally impoverished Italian aristocrat Jeremy Northam, who chooses to forsake her affections and marry bland debutante Kate Beckinsale, daughter of wealthy coal tycoon Nick Nolte. Beckinsale's dearest friend since childhood, Thurman agrees to a marriage of convenience with the older Nolte, but continues to rendezvous with Northam in secret. The titular object—a crystal chalice that looks pristine and luminous from afar, but reveals a crack upon closer inspection—may or may not be determined as a metaphor, provided you can successfully dislodge it from your skull. A textbook example of why much symbolism works better on the page, the bowl may read like an elegant expression of the quartet's false symbiosis, but when vocalized, it's stunningly banal. Like many Merchant-Ivory films, The Golden Bowl is a reasonably diverting melodrama, buoyed by an interesting subplot about the export of European culture to America. But by the time it's done interpreting itself, there's nothing much left for the audience.

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